Texas is looking at a final path through the conference that is filled with potential landmines of the sort that would never seriously concern a truly “back” Texas. In Mack Brown’s heyday in the 2000s a season in which Texas was legitimately worried about a trip to Stillwater or Lubbock after playing Oklahoma was a “down” year. The 2007 Longhorns were one of the weaker units of the decade and needed a sensational Jamaal Charles-led comeback to beat OSU on the road in Stillwater. The following week, they had to rely on Charles and an ultra-efficient day from Colt McCoy to fend off Texas Tech at home, yet they managed each task.
To similarly beat those two teams with any kind of effort would likely secure a path to the Big 12 championship and be far and away the most successful season of the decade for the 2010s Horns.
The upcoming trip to Stillwater is similar to the 2014 contest in Charlie Strong’s inaugural season when Texas caught the tail end of Daxx Garman’s run at OSU and whipped the Pokes 28-7. If you don’t recall, Garman was a strong-armed walk-on that was serving as a one-year solution after Clint Chelf graduated, Wes Lunt transferred, and J.W. Walsh went down with injury. That game was it for Garman. Mike Gundy finally inserted freshman Mason Rudolph the following week against Baylor and closed out the year 2-1 with wins over Oklahoma and Washington. The parallels are obviously very strong.
The mullet’s conundrum
The Cowboys have four wins on the resume and five games left in the season, with hopefully a sixth in the form of a bowl game. They need to find two wins from Texas, at Baylor, at Oklahoma, West Virginia, and at TCU. That’s a daunting task for a team that is coming off a bye week they needed to rest up from the bruising that Kansas State and Alex Barnes gave them in a 31-12 beatdown.
This team has a few issues holding them back from hitting bowl eligibility. The first is a defense that is beat up and weak inside. They also lack the talent and the experience in the secondary to make first year DC Jim Knowles’ aggressive schemes work properly. That’s not really going to be fixed much by a bye week save for having a chance to hammer down some important tactics for their younger players and freshen up their legs along the DL.
The other is an offense that has lacked good play at OT or QB. At some point in the last few weeks the Pokes promoted RS sophomore Teven Jenkins to starting LT (from RT) and then moved their sixth-man Shane Richards out to RT.
Their OL now goes:
LT: 6-6, 310 pound RS sophomore and first year starter.
LG: 6-3, 300 pound RS junior and third year starter.
C: 6-3, 310 pound RS junior and second year starter.
RG: 6-4, 330 pound 6th year senior and third year starter.
RT: 6-8, 336 pound RS senior and first year starter.
They are solid on the interior and stocked up with the three main guys who helped Justice Hill run for almost 1500 yards a year ago, but they are relying on an unready or lesser quality option at either tackle spot.
Meanwhile QB Taylor Cornelius has been pretty spotty replacing Mason Rudolph. His timing and accuracy isn’t always there and if you can get pressure on him his accuracy really sinks. However he does add an amusingly good run game threat at 6-6 and 230 pounds:
Beyond the zone-read game (which they’ll also run with a lead blocker for him) the Pokes also mix in QB counter and other such runs, often with the swing or bubble pass attached like Texas occasionally calls for Sam Ehlinger. Cornelius has held up pretty well so far but obviously he has a lot of surface area exposed when he runs, and he doesn’t adopt the “be the hammer, not the nail!” approach to being a ballcarrier that you see from Ehlinger, nor the “protect that money!” approach you see Kyler Murray execute so flawlessly.
Overall the OSU run game has not proven effective enough to push the offense through, primarily because this is really more of a pass-first concept that Gundy relies on to begin with. The Pokes attach pass options to their runs and love to throw down the field to vertical route combos off play-action. That’s been their bread and butter for years and years. So Cornelius’ value-add in the run game isn’t nearly enough to make up for the loss of 2-3 landed deep shots on post routes to the Z receiver (formerly James Washington, now the also exceptional Tylan Wallace).
Before the season the expectation was that the starting job would be won by Hawaii transfer Dru Brown (who incidentally, probably wouldn’t win the job at Hawaii this year) but the precision and RPOs of the OSU offense didn’t come fast enough for the fall enrollee to supplant the more experienced Cornelius. Many an OSU fan and writer thought that freshman phenom Spencer Sanders would start immediately but that was always a longshot given the jump in complexity both in offense and opposing defense that he was facing.
There’s the chance that after the bye week OSU could shake things up with one of those options but that would mean starting the four-game countdown on either Brown or Sanders. Neither have played a game this year, but plugging in Brown for the rest of the schedule would exhaust his eligibility and end his career. Alternatively, using a maybe-ready Sanders behind a weak OT tandem could be sacrificing a much better version of the player in 2022 in exchange for a few games in a down 2018. It’s worth noting that if Mason Rudolph wasn’t used in the last three games of 2014, there’s a good chance he’d be OSU’s starting QB right now.
Mike Gundy has a five year contract and probably isn’t thinking short-term here but you never know what things are like in their practices and what they might pull coming off the bye week.
I’m guessing that Sam Ehlinger will play based on the nature of the injury and the nature of Ehlinger, who once won a playoff game with a broken wrist. However, if they don’t like how his throwing motion looks or they love their gameplan without him, it’s possible that Tom Herman will save him for West Virginia and Texas Tech.
There’s no question that Ehlinger would be useful in this game. The Cowboys haven’t been very good at dealing with the option game, and their base pass-rush against Kansas State yielded a lot of plays where there was ZERO push from the DTs. That allowed Skylar Thompson to leak out through downhill rushing lanes for big yardage on the scramble.
In their last two games against Brock “pump fake” Purdy and Thompson the Pokes yielded 16 carries for 90 yards and a score to Purdy, then 10 for 97 yards from Thompson (after removing sack yardage). Some of the better pressure packages from the Pokes are in their three-down, spinner fronts that utilize a DE like Jordan Brailford (eight sacks already) or Brock Martin, or will LB “crazy” Cal Bundage as a stand-up pass rusher that attacks an inside gap.
The Pokes are enthusiastic when playing in Knowles more aggressive pressure schemes. Their issues come in the form of their coverages and run force on the perimeter. Knowles brought an aggressive brand of quarters over from Duke and has also maintained the same single-high coverages that OSU already had in the books. Here’s a quarters call where all 11 defenders can be seen in front of the sticks before the snap on first and 10:
That’s a Michigan State style defense and you have to be precise at every position and good in the pass-rush to make that work. The Pokes are not precise at every position and sporadic in the pass-rush when they aren’t bringing a pressure.
The key to that Spartan style of defense is that you know your base defense inside and out and the aggressiveness of the scheme forces offenses to try and either force their preferred style against bad leverage or else to go to a handful of typical countering tactics that the defenders know how to recognize and adjust to. In other words, it’s all about familiarity with the system and team defense, which is hard to achieve in year one. It’s even harder if your accompanying style is to mix in other main coverages and exotic pressure schemes that have to be repped extensively to do right.
For Texas, the offensive gameplan this week is primarily about recognizing OSU’s pressures at QB and specifically along the OL, then punishing them early with throws to LJH and Collin Johnson outside on the overmatched secondary. Keaontay Ingram’s knack for hitting multiple creases in the run game is also likely to cause fits for a LB corps that is much more comfortable shooting gaps than playing sound run fits.
Texas’ normal routine on offense is probably going to be more than the Cowboys can really handle with all of their issues on defense right now. The unbalanced sets that our own Joseph Cook broke down this week, particularly when operated at tempo, are one of a few ways that Texas could break apart this defense with confusion and forced or unforced errors.
What will define this game?
The S&P+ model for picking games likes Oklahoma State by almost 11 points. The “home game for team that’s going all in to reach bowl eligibility and capture a season-defining victory while coming off a bye week” angle is pretty compelling as well, but none of that factors into the S&P+ projection save for a +3 for homefield advantage.
Vegas opened with Texas -2.5 and has moved to -3.5 over the course of the week, preferring the Longhorns’ capacity for grinding out wins and superior talent.
Another notable detail is that OSU adjusted in the wake of getting shut down by Todd Orlando last year. They’ve played philosophically similar Iowa State twice since that fateful 13-10 victory in Austin. The first time Rudolph threw for 376 yards and three scores while Justice Hill added 134 rushing and three more TDs in a 49-42 victory. This year they went down 48-42 but Cornelius threw for 289 and four TDs while adding 46 and a score on the ground when the Cyclones schemed to stop up the OSU run game.
Against Iowa State, they did their damage early with TE sets featuring converted QB Jelani Woods often aligned opposite trips receivers so they could mix some iso schemes with bubble routes, or take deep shots and overload the Cyclones’ deep coverage with vertical routes:
That’s a very K-State-y concept, indeed one that K-State used to great effect on OSU last season. Trying to find running room for Hill by adding a TE over Texas’ DEs in the tite front is probably going to be a big part of the OSU strategy and whether the Longhorns can stay on top of it without yielding deep shots could determine the game.
On the flip side is OSU’s problem with quick DL, particularly on the right side…
…although their LT is no Jonathan Ogden either. Orlando’s pressure packages with B.J. Foster and Gary Johnson along with the normal rush from Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager is likely to have an outsized impact on this game because OSU is so poorly equipped to deal with them.
Finally there is Texas’ consistent capacity for creating gaps in the run game for Keaontay Ingram against an overmatched DL. The only area where the Pokes would seem to be at a meaningful advantage in this game is if they draw Shane Buechele and can generate some pressures with the blitz that either kill drives or yield some turnover luck.
Assuming that OSU comes into this game with more focus and motivation, which seems very plausible, then you can project things like Texas losing track of an OSU WR on a deep shot or yielding a TD drive powered by a zone-read where they forget that Cornelius can run the ball. However, they’ll also sack Cornelius and perhaps turn him over a few times. If the latter occurs a few times this probably won’t be close.
The meta-narratives about this game may all favor OSU but when you look at the crucial matchups that will likely define the game, it seems more likely that a worst case scenario is the Longhorns eeking out a win on a margin like Vegas offered. Then it’s on to the real challenges; playing West Virginia after a long week (the Mountaineers play Thursday night) and then travelling to Lubbock to face Texas Tech.